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William Shakespeare

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English Literature

What comes to your mind when you hear the name 'Shakespeare'? Do you think of funny puns or poetic monologues? Tragic heroes or wicked villains? Messy love triangles or star-crossed lovers? You can find all of these things and more in the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who wrote in England during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

So, let's dive into the life and works of Shakespeare, who remains one of the most well-known writers in the English Language of all time.

William Shakespeare: Biography

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England and baptised on April 26th, 1564.

His mother was the daughter of a landowner, and his father was a local businessman. At the age of 18, Shakespeare married his cousin, Anne Hathaway, who was eight years older than him, and they had three children together: Susanna, Hamnet, and Judith.

After his marriage, Shakespeare spent most of his time in London, where he wrote and performed in his plays. Sometime between 1585 and 1592, he became the part-owner of a theatre company that was first called Lord Chamberlain's Men and later changed its name to The King's Men.

Shakespeare died at the age of 52 on April 23rd, 1616, in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon with a legacy of 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems, and more than 30 plays.

William Shakespeare: Quotes and Major Works

Let's take a look at Shakespeare's most well-known works, focusing on his tragedies, comedies, and sonnets.

Tragedies

Romeo and Juliet (1597)

These violent delights have violent ends

And in their triumph die, like fire and powder

Which, as they kiss, consume.

(Friar Laurence, Act 2, Scene 6)

Set in Verona, Romeo and Juliet is a play about two star-crossed lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who can't be together because of the rivalry between their families. Romeo and Juliet marry in secret and plan to run away together, but things go wrong; ultimately, the feud between the two families leads to the death of the young lovers.

Did you know that the famous 1957 musical West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet? The musical sets the story in the more contemporary setting of 1950s New York.

Hamlet (1599-1601)

To be, or not to be? That is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them.

(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play. Set in Denmark, the tragedy follows the young prince Hamlet as he attempts to get revenge on his uncle, Claudius, for the murder of Hamlet's father. It was, and remains, one of Shakespeare's most popular plays.

Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Brannagh, and David Tennant are only a few of the famous actors who have portrayed Hamlet on stage and on screen.

Othello (1603)

Our bodies are our

gardens, to which our wills are

gardeners.

(Iago, Act 1, scene 3)

Othello is set in Cyprus during the Ottoman-Venetian War (1570-1573). The play follows Othello, who is the general of the Venetian army. He is tricked by the villain, Iago, who drives him to a fit of jealous rage. Othello kills his wife, Desdemona, and then he kills himself.

Throughout the play, Othello is referred to as a 'Moor'. In Roman times, this term was used to describe the citizens of North Africa; later, it took on different meanings, including a citizen of the country Mauritius. In the context of the play, Othello is called a 'Moor' because he has darker skin than everyone else. This marks Othello out as different and distanced from the other characters, and he is discriminated against for this reason.

King Lear (1606)

When we are born, we cry that we are come

To this great stage of fools.

(Lear, Act 4, Scene 5)

King Lear is a tragedy based on the legend of King Leir of the Brittons. The play follows an elderly King Lear as he descends into madness and poverty. Tired of ruling, he divides his kingdom into two and gives it to the two daughters who flatter him while abandoning Cordelia, the only daughter who truly loves him. This sets into motion a series of events that ends in the death of his entire family.

Macbeth (1605-1606)

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles, to betray's

In deepest consequence.

(Banquo, Act 1, Scene 3)

Macbeth is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy. The play is loosely based on the life of the Scottish king Macbeth (1040-1057). After three witches tell the brave Scottish general Macbeth that he will become king, he stops at nothing to make this happen, and his bloody deeds ultimately lead to his downfall.

Comedies

The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592)

If I be waspish, best beware my sting.

(Katherina, Act 2 Scene 1)

The Taming of the Shrew is about the headstrong Katherina who has no suitors because she is considered aggressively assertive or 'shrewish'. Petruchio is the only man who succeeds at 'taming' Katherina and turning her into an obedient wife.

Did you know that the cult classic 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) is a modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew?

Much Ado About Nothing (1598-09)

I would my horse had the speed of your tongue and so good a continued.

(Benedick, Act 1, Scene 1)

Much Ado About Nothing is a comedy that centres around two romantic couples: Claudio and Hero and Benedick and Beatrice. Claudio is tricked into believing Hero is not a virgin by the villain, Don John, before eventually discovering the truth and marrying her. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice overcome their constant bickering and finally admit their love for one another.

Twelfth Night (1601-02)

If music be the food of love, play on.

(Orsino, Act 1, Scene 1)

Twelfth Night is about twins Viola and Sebastian, who lose each other in a shipwreck and are reunited at the end of the play. The comedy includes many comedic misunderstandings, most of which come from Viola pretending to be a man called Cesario.

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1605)

The course of true love never did run smooth.

(Lysander, Act 1, Scene 1)

Set in Athens, A Midsummer Night's Dream follows several subplots. The play takes place in an enchanted forest full of fairies. The king and queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania, meddle in the lives of humans and complicate their relationships.

The Tempest (1611)

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on: and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

(Prospero, Act 4, Scene 1)

The Tempest is about the sorcerer Prospero and his daughter Miranda, who live on a remote island after being left stranded there. In an ironic turn of events, the people who put Prospero and Miranda there are shipwrecked on the same island after a storm. Prospero has revenge on his mind, but all is forgiven in the end.

Sonnets

Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets, first published in 1609. He also included additional sonnets in some of his plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost (1590), and Henry V (1599).

All of Shakespeare's sonnets follow a specific structure: they have 14 lines and are written in iambic pentameter. The way Shakespeare wrote his sonnets even sparked a new genre: the Shakespearean Sonnet.

  • A sonnet is a poem with 14 lines, where each line contains ten syllables and follows a fixed pattern of rhyme.
  • A poem written in iambic pentameter has lines made up of ten syllables which can be broken down further into five iambic feet (one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

During his life, William Shakespeare was a prolific and well-known writer. In fact, Shakespeare was so prolific and well-known that there's an ongoing debate as to whether he really wrote all of the works attributed to him. This debate is known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

The Shakespeare Authorship Question involves several theories:

  • Someone else wrote the works but published them under William Shakespeare's name. Shakespeare's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), has been named as a possible author of Shakespeare's works.
  • Shakespeare's works were actually written by a group of people and not by a single author.
  • The William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon that we know of may not be the same William Shakespeare who wrote plays in London.

Do you think that Shakespeare wrote all of his works? If not, which theory do you think is more likely to be true?

William Shakespeare: Facts

  • Shakespeare is often referred to as England's National Poet, the Bard of Avon, or simply the Bard. He invented more than 1700 words and phrases in the English language that we still use on a daily basis, such as 'admirable', 'cold-blooded', 'bastard', and 'critic', among many others.
  • Shakespeare's plays have been translated into almost every language and are constantly performed in theatres around the world.

We don't know much about Shakespeare's personal life, but that doesn't mean it's not interesting to imagine what it might've been like. The 1998 film Shakespeare in Love introduces us to a young Shakespeare by combining facts and fiction. The novel Hamnet (2020) by Maggie O'Farrell also presents a fictional and, at points, fantastical take on what Shakespeare's family life could have looked like, focusing on the death of his young son Hamnet.

William Shakespeare - Key takeaways

  • William Shakespeare is the most well-known poet and dramatist in the English language.
  • William Shakespeare was baptised on April 26th, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon and died on April 23rd, 1616, in Stratford-upon-Avon.
  • Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and more than 30 plays.
  • The Shakespeare Authorship Question involves several theories that debate if Shakespeare really wrote his works.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is an English writer, poet and dramatist who lived and worked during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

William Shakespeare died on April 23rd 1616.

William Shakespeare is famous for writing 154 sonnets and more than 30 plays. Shakespeare invented more than 1, 700 words and phrases in the English language that we still use on a daily basis.

William Shakespare married his cousin Anne Hathaway (1556-1623).

Final William Shakespeare Quiz

Question

Who wrote the play Othello?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true about the character Othello?

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Answer

Othello married Juliet Capulet

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Question

Which of the following is true of the play Othello?

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Answer

There are no subplots.

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Question

Who kills Desdemona in Othello?

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Answer

Her husband

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Question

In which city is the play Othello set?

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Answer

Venice

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What does Othello suspect of Desdemona?

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Answer

She is having an affair.

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a character in Othello?

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Answer

Octavius

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Question

Which character manipulates Roderigo?

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Answer

Iago

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true of Othello

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Answer

He is a citizen of the Netherlands.

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Question

Which of the following objects is the symbol for the loss of love between Othello and Desdemona?

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Answer

A handkerchief

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Question

Who wrote the play The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

William Shakespeare

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Who is the 'shrew' in The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Katherine

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Which of the following is a feature of The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Cross dressing characters

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Question

Which character obeys her husband at the end of the play?

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Answer

Katherine

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Question

What takes place in the induction if The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

A practical joke

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Question

Which of the following techniques did Petruchio NOT use to 'tame' his wife?

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Answer

Beating his wife

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Question

Which of the following is NOT true of Katherine?

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Answer

She is sadistic.

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Question

Who are the two main characters of the subplot in The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Bianca and Lucentio

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a theme of The Taming of the Shrew?

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Answer

Jealousy

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Question

Out of the following, who is NOT a suitor of Bianca?

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Answer

Vincentio

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Question

The Winter's Tale is a...?

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Answer

Problem play

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True or False: In the play, romantic love is presented as more important than the love between friends.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: At the end of the play, everyone forgives Leontes and he is redeemed.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Why is the play called The Winter's Tale?

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Answer

Because winter symbolises the tragedy of the first part of the play. 

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Question

Who is Perdita?

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Answer

The daughter of Leontes and Hermione, raised by the Shepherd

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Whose death is described using the stage direction, 'Exit, pursued by a bear.' (Act 3, Scene 3)?

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Answer

Antigonus'

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True or False: Polixenes is the King of Sicilia.

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Answer

False.

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Who predicts that Leontes' only heir will be his daughter?

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Answer

The Oracle of Delphos

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True or False: Florizel pretends to be a shepherd named Doricles.

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Answer

True.

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Which character is resurrected at the end of the play?

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Hermione

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True or False: Leontes and Polixenes are childhood friends.

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True.

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How many years pass before Leontes and Perdita see each other again?

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Answer

16 years

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True or False: When Polixenes thinks that Perdita is a shepherdess, he approves of her marriage to his son.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Who does Duke Vincentio appoint as his deputy?

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Answer

Angelo

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Question

Where is Measure for Measure set?

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Answer

Vienna

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Duke Vincentio disguises as....?

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Answer

Friar Lodowick

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Who is Angelo's ex-fiancee?

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Answer

Mariana

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True or False: At the end of the play, Isabella becomes a nun.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Claudio is beheaded.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: Angelo wants to trade Isabella's virginity for her brother's life.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: Measure for Measure is a problem play.

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Answer

True.

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Which of the following is NOT one of the main themes in Measure for Measure?

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Answer

 Love and romance

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True or False: The justice system in Measure for Measure's Vienna is flawed.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: Isabella loses her virginity to save Claudio's life.

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Answer

False.

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True or False: 'Measure for measure' means that one should be treated the same as they have treated others.

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Answer

 True.

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Question

Which character represents mercy?

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Answer

Isabella

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Question

Which character accidentally insults Duke Vincentio?

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Answer

Lucio

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Question

True or False: Angelo left Mariana when her dowry was lost.

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Answer

True.

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Question

Why does Lady Macbeth ask the spirits to ‘unsex’ her?

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Answer

Because she believes that women are weak, and she needs to be strong.

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Question

How many acts does Macbeth have?

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Answer

5

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